Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review

Thanks to the combination of a trip to Chicago's Abraham Lincoln Book Shop and my 33rd birthday I ended up with two books about Fort Sumter.

The first book is called Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War.  Allegiance is a narrative of the events in Charleston that led up to the bombardment of Fort Sumter.   The larger picture is discussed but the focus is on the city of Charleston and on Fort Sumter.  Great pains are therefore taken to explain the details of life in antebellum Charleston and life in a fort in the pre Civil War army.  This focus on the minute details of life in Charleston harbor give the book a tense, claustrophobic feel; just like I suspect things felt in charleston in 1860.  

The second book Maury Klein's Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War.  Klein's tale gives a much broader view of the events leading up to the start of the Cvil War.  Defiance explores the pre-inauguration and early days of Abraham Lincoln's presidency and the early days of the Confederacy.  Klein also takes time to explore the wider political issues that swirled about the start of the Civil War.  When I say wider political issues I don't mean to imply that something other than slavery caused the Civil War.  What I mean to say is the Klein explores the politics and culture of South Carolina and that culture led many South Carolinians to favor secession.  Klein also explore the debates in Washington about various plans to compromise and how those debates paralyzed Congress and tore apart the administration of James Buchanan.  Ultimately, the political debate was paralyzed because the debate over slavery could not be separated from the debate over secession and there was no compromise to had on the issue of secession.

I found two people who played major parts in the drama to be particularly fascinating.  The first is Major Robert Anderson who was the commander of the Union forces at Fort Sumter.  Anderson was a southerner who was friends with Jefferson Davis, married into a slave holding family, mentored the Confederate general opposing him, but somehow managed to be a stuanch unionist and refused to surrender the fort.  The second person I found fascinating was South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond.  Hammond is best know for his "Cotton is King" speech that gave the broad view to the importance of a slave based plantation economy to the South.  Hammond's personal life contained the contradictions the also gripped the South.  Hammond was so hemmed in by the stifling life among the South's elite that he turned to taking some of his slaves as mistresses and to engaging in inappropriate relationships with his 2 nieces; who just happened to be the daughters of the Wade Hampton who was perhaps the richest and most powerful man in the entire state.  Hammond's life became a metaphor for the hypocrisy that lay at the heart of southern antebellum culture.

Both of these books are good by themselves and together they give a great view of the events leading up to Fort Sumter.  However, if you can only choose one then I would recommend Days of Defiance.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Waking Up in Vegas

Lately I have had Katy Perry' s Waking Up in Vegas going through my head.  I get the appeal behind the song.  Katy Perry is a very attractive woman and I understand how a pop music hook works.  And it's not like I don't listen to good music; I mean I listen to Wilco.  But sometimes I just like being appealed to.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Ted Kennedy Memory

With the news of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, I wanted to share the story of the one time I saw Sen. Kennedy in person.

Back in May of 2007, liturgygeek and I met some friends for a week in Washington D.C. Liturgygeek arranged through Sen. Tom Harkin's office for her and I to tour the Capitol. For those of you steeped in backbencher lore, this is the same day Mechellle Norris gave me a gold star. Part of our tour included a few minutes observing the Senate at work. We sat silently in the gallery and looked down onto the Senate chamber. Only three Senators were present on the floor. Sen. Mike Enzi(R-WY) sat at a desk reading some papers. Sen. Amy Klobuchar(D-MN) addressed the Senate, and Sen. Kennedy sat at a desk in the front row talking to aides. During quiet moments a voice with a Boston accent could be heard from the gallery. The words were unitelligble but the voice and accent were unmistakable.

Sen. Kennedy gave no stirring speech and I did not gain any type of special insight into the person or the politics of Ted Kennedy. I was just glad to see the lion of Senate at work in a place that probably felt like home to him.

Monday, August 24, 2009

We Might Have Ourselves a Race

Reports in Iowa are mentioning a possible anonymous big name Democratic challenger to Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Beltway speculation centers on Rep. Bruce Braley(D-IA-1). Braley already has turning a Republican seat into a Democratic one but this time he would he would have to beat an incumbent.

I think it would be hard for Braley to defeat Grassley. Grassley is a longtime and popular incumbent, and 2010 looks like it will be a year that leans toward the GOP. However, Grassley's actions during the health care debate deserve a moment of accountability. A serious challenge to Grassley might not lead to 2 Democratic Senators from Iowa but it would force Grassley to face accountability for his role in the health care debate, and democracy is about forcing political leaders to be accountable and not getting a free ride for their actions.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Changing the Tone in D.C.

My friend Lucky Fresh, the gentlelady from Alabama, blogged a few days about a Paul Krugman column talking about about the reality of partisanship in today's politics.  Today, Krugman is back with column talking about the trust problem Obama has with progressives.  Eugene Robinson address the same question in another column in today's Washington Post.  Robinson's point is that Democratic leaders, and especially President Obama, are not demonstrating the proper passion in defense of their health care reform bill.

One of my fears of Obama is that he thought his ability to be conciliatory and work with others would lesson the partisan disagreement in Washington.  I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume the talk of working with Republicans was just campaign speech and that Obama understood the nature of modern politics and the ferocity of Republican opposition.  Sadly, it actually appears President Obama actually believed his talk about working with Republicans and his presidency is weaker for it.

This is how you change the tone in Washington.  First you administer electoral ass whuppings, like the Democrats did in 2006 and 2008, and capture the Presidency and win commanding majorities in Congress.  Second, you steam roll your agenda through without regard to the opposition.  In other words you get all of what you can while holding your governing coalition together.  The tone in Washington changes when what you put through demonstrates that it works and that it is popular with the electorate.  Then the tone changes because everyone, including the opposition, recognizes and adjusts to a new political reality.  Republicans fought tooth and nail against Social Security and Medicare but they know better then to attack those programs now because they are popular.  In fact, GOP member of Congress often help people with issues regarding Social Security and Medicare.

A change in tone is a side effect to implementing a good and popular agenda.  It is not a prerequisite.  It is time President Obama learned this fact.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Did You Play Football in High School?

No, I was on the football team.

Here is a video of the Ed White Commanders getting ready for the season. From the 1991 season through the 1993 season I stared at back-up wide receiver for the Commanders. During the time I was on the team we never passed the ball.

Seriously, we never passed the ball. I would check the box score in the Saturday paper and see that Ed White was 6/1o passing the ball for 110 yards and I knew that they must have counted the passes we threw in warm-ups.

Even now, after 16 years, it is difficult for me to describe what it was like for me to be on the football team and what that experiences means to me. I do know that few things in life have ever heightened my senses the way football did. I can still smell the smoke from the concession stand grill, I can still see smoke and mist rising through a lit up football stadium, I can still feel the coolness of the damp evening grass. I also know that I learned the discipline of being on-time and even early because of the discipline of playing football.

Even though I struggle to describe the experience I do have quite a few memories:

Going undefeated against Lee and Forest and being Westside Champs for all 3 years I was in high school. The senior year victory over Lee was especially sweet; we kicked a field goal in overtime to win, we stole Lee's prize canon after the game, and then we made up t-shirts that said, "Big Blue we own you...and your toys too."

Playing in the Bonos Bowl in my junior year. We defeated local power Bolles in a game played at the old Gator Bowl. We got to use the dressing rooms the college teams used and I can remember Head Coach Dan Disch bragging that he peed where Vince Dooley and Bo Schembechler peed.

One afternoon at practice a college scout showed up. The scout stood off to the side with Coach Disch. The receivers were practicing over by where the scout and Coach Disch were standing. I lined up to ran a pass route near Coach and the scout, and I heard the scout ask Coach Disch, "What about this one?" Disch responded, "He's as slow as Christmas."

I remember playing in my first game. It was about halfway through my junior season. It came at the end of a 17-0 defeat of Sandalwood and I celebrated at the end of that game in ways that I never celebrated again. I found another guy who also played in his first game and we jumped up down in the locker room screaming "We got to play, we got to play."

My last game was the first play-off game in school history and I was choosen to be a team captain. Coach choose four of us who were not stars but who had worked hard and stayed with the team for 3 years. We lost 28-21 to Palatka in the first round. After the game we turned in our gear, and as I walked out of the field house for the last time our safety Donald Velvet stopped me and we hugged. The only thing, and I mean the only thing, Donald and I had in common was we were we both seniors on the football team at Ed White. I walked out of the field house and my football career was over. The next morning I got up and went with my parents down to Lakeland for my first visit of a potential college.

There are so many other memories that I have. I remember the singing and chanting on the bus after a road win. I remember some of the NFL players that I saw like Patrick Sapp, Brian Dawkins, Fred Weary, and Sam Cowert. I know that Cheston Blackshear was the best player I ever played with and that he went on to be a starting offensive guard for the University of Florida. I remember Sam, wearing my jersey around school on gamedays, and pre-game meals at Mr. Gatti's.

I no longer keep up with any of my teammates. As for Coach Disch, he is now the defensive coordinator at the University of Illinois. The current head coach, Coach Gilliam, was my position coach.

If I had it to do over again I don't know if I would make the decision to go out for the team but I do treasure my 3 seasons on the football team.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review

During the heart of the Bush administration I read James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans.  Rise of the Vulcans is a history of how the major players in the second Bush administration came to be in their positions and there ideas of the world were formed.  James Mann has now turned his attention Ronald Reagan and Regan's role in ending the Cold War and tells the story in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan.

Mann's theory is that Regan rebelled against both the realist school of foreign policy that President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger represented and the more hawkish school of foreign policy of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.  Reagan rebelled against these schools of thought to see that ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev represented a fundamental change in the Soviet Union.  Reagan's foresight allowed him to create the room necessary for Gorbachev to fundamentally change the Soviet Union.  The changes wrought by Gorbachev are what brought the Cold War to an end.

This is a theory that I have read before but Mann's story details on how Reagan rebelled and came to point where he worked with Gorbachev to end the Cold War.  Reagan's rebellion occurred during his second term and Mann uses four points in time during the second term to explain how Reagan played his part.  The first point is a secret White House meeting between Presidents Reagan and Nixon that represents how Reagan broke out the prevailing thinking about the Cold War and saw that Gorbachev represented something new in the Soviet Union.  The second point in the story is a series of private meetings Reagan held author Suzanne Massie.  These meetings with Massie gave Reagan a view life for the common person in Russia.  Reagan also used his relationship with Massie as a back channel to Soviet authorities.  Mann's third point is Reagan's "tear down this wall speech" in Berlin.  In the fourth section, Mann describes the two summit meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1988.

Mann is determined to show that Reagan did not end the Cold Wa but that he created the room that allowed Gorbachev to change the Soviet system, which would lead to the end of the Cold War.  I am still not a large fan of Reagan but I found myself respecting his ability and willingness to meet Gorbachev and break free of old thinking on foreign policy.  I think there is a lesson to be learned about breaking free of conventional wisdom but sometimes I worry that our current leadership is too invested in making the conventional wisdom work.  Mann's book is a good and thought provoking read that opened my eyes to the backstory of the one of the most formative political stories of my youth.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Exactly is a D.C. Moderate?

Of my states two Senators I have met one of them.  The one I have met is Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-IA) who is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and the leading Republican negotiator for the health care bill.

When I met Sen. Grassley it was last spring at a townhall meeting in my home of Red Oak.  He covered all the issues of the day, and he held the most conservative positions possible.  He was, for example, firmly against Sen. McCain's(who was his party's Presidential nominee at the time)immigration reform ideas.  In his Senate career he not shown himself to be anti-war like former Sen. Lincoln Chafee(R-RI) or to hold pro-choice views like Maine's current GOP Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snow.  Unlike Sen. George Voinovich(R-OH) or Sen. Lindsey Graham(R-SC), Grassley did not support Justice Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court.  Sen. Grassley did not support the Lily Ledbetter act, did not vote for the stimulus, or the most recent cash for clunkers bill.   There is nothing in his record to indicate that he is anything but a conservative Republican.

Except that Sen Grassley is the most powerful Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and when the GOP was in control Grassley served as the chair.  The Senate Finance Committee, as explained here, deals with matters of government revenue and programs funded by the Federal Government.  This is only anecdotal evidence but everything I know about Sen. Grassley is that he takes good care of his constituents and is willing to his use his access to federal funds to help local programs.  I find nothing wrong with this because I believe there are matters of local importance that can only be funded with the help of federal money.  It looks like Grassley's reputation for moderation comes from his willingness to assist fellow Senators to access federal funds for their locally important projects.  This is fine work but just because Sen. Grassley helps a Senator access federal funds does not mean that Grassley agrees that Senator politically.

Reports like these make it clear that Sen Grassley, for both idealogical and bare-knuckled political reasons, is not really interested in a health care reform bill.  The question is whether or not President Obama and Finance Committee chair Sen. Max Baucus(R-MT) realize that Grassley doesn't want a deal.  If Obama and Baucus continue to hold to some D.C. establishment idea of moderation they are damned fools and the healthcare bill will reflect their foolishness.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Our House of Lords

Read this article from the Washington Post about how the Senate became the place where progress goes to die.

For me, the key thing is that over time the Senate has structured and conducted itself in a deliberate manner to increase its power to accomplish its policy goals.  If Senators were really interested in getting something done, they would find ways to change their structure and conduct accordingly. 

This Sh*t has got to Stop

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said that Obama's "Death Panel" could decide to kill babies who, like her son, have Down's Syndrome.  The former governor is an ignorant and loathsome fool who appeals to the worst in American political culture, but sentiments like hers could do real damage to the ability of people to receive end of life care.

According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the National Hospice Foundation only about half of the people who are currently eligible to receice hospice care actually get it, and that 10% of families who receive hospice care believe that the care stated to late.
There are some other facts about hospice and palliative care that need to be acknowledged.  People on hospice are still followed by their local doctors and a not a panel of bureaucrats in Washington D.C.  People can still receive various types of chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis, or other types of treatments while on hospice.  People can still be treated for their health concerns while on hospice.  For example, if a person on hospice care with terminal lung cancer slips and falls on an icy sidewalk then they can go to the ER and still have their broken arm treated.  People can voluntarily come off hospice care at any time they choose and people on hospice are routinely checked to see if hospice is the best level of care or if another level of care would be better suited to the meet the person's needs.  Again, making this decision is not a group of government folks from Washington but local doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who work with patients and families to find a way to keep providing the care that best meets the person's needs.

Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, understands what hospice is about and how so many more people would benefit from receiving hospice care.  So, she inserted the language in the health care bill to ensure that more people are made aware of the benefits of end of life care.  This ignorant demagoguing from the likes of Sarah Palin just makes more people afraid of end of life care and keeps many people who would benefit from hospice from accessing the care hospice provides.  Real people might needlessly suffer because the words and actions of the vile and the foolish.  

This sh*t has got to stop.

Backbencher of the Week

Perhaps being close to retiring gives some politicians a feeling of independence.  That certainly appears to be the case for this week's Backbencher of the Week, Sen. George Voinovich(R-OH). 

First, Sen. Voinovich pointed out that the Republican party's southern tilt is hurting the party.  Spcifically he called out Senators Jim DeMint(R-SC) and Tom Coburn(R-OK); two ultra-conservative Republican Senators for being the face of party's southern problem.  Voinovich said, "They get on TV and go errrr, errr.  People ear them and say, "These people, they're southerners.  The party's being taken over by southerners.  What the hell they got to do with Ohio?"

Second, Sen. Voinovich was one of 8 Republicans to vote with the majority of the Senate to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court.

For a little bit of independence, Senator George Voinovich is this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Politicians are Tools

Apparently White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Sen Ben Nelson(D-NE) are both upset that progressive groups are running ads pressuring Democratic members of Congress to vote for a more progressive health care bill. 

Let me put this as bluntly as possible, politicians are tools that people use to get their government to do what the electorate wants.  Public pressure is one of the methods that people use to get their elected tools to work and actually do what they were sent to Washington to do.

Left to their own device most politicians would not do anything.  The quickest way to get unwanted attention in Washington is to do something.  Watch C-SPAN 2 for a day and you will see that the average day in the Senate is marked by speeches and the calling of the roll.

There is a story about Franklin Roosevelt meeting with a bunch of activist types who were lobbying on behalf of a particular bill.  President Roosevelt told them, "I agree with you, I want to do it, Now go make me do it."  Washington politicians make a good salary and their jobs come with some great perks.  If they don't want to be made to do what they were sent to Washington to do then they should find a different line of work.  Many of the amendments in the Constitution, especially the ones concerning freedom of assembly, speech, and petition, grant the people the untrammeled right to pressure politicians.  If politicians don't like that fact, they ought to leave Washington before they break their oaths to support and defend the constitution.

To put this in language that Rahm can understand, "Shut the f*ck up and listen to the people."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Iowa GOP Going Back in Time?

The Iowa Republican Party is having trouble recruiting challengers to take on incumbent Governor Chet Culver.  This is not a good sign for the Iowa GOP because, like many incumbent governors facing election in 2010, Culver could be vulnerable.  In their desire to unseat Culver, some in the GOP are turning to former Governor Terry Branstad.  An article in today's Des Moines Register outlines Branstad's chances in a GOP primary.  

There are a couple of things to take from this article.  One of those is the article does not address the fact the Iowa is a swing state that is going increasingly Democratic.  Democrats have won the last 3 gubernatorial elections and Obama won Iowa by almost 10 points.  Would a Republican, even a popular former governor, fare well in an increasingly blue state.

Another thing is that Branstad built his reputation as a pragmatic conservative who could get things done.  There were many such Republican governors in the 1990's; they include Michigan's John Engler, Illinois' Jim Edgar, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, and even George W. Bush in his Texas incarnation when he worked with a Democratic Lt. Governor.  Branstad worked with a Democratic legislature to pass budgets that included increases in the sales tax.  Branstad also supported the lottery, and bringing casino gambling to Iowa.  At the same time, Branstad never got the reputation as a crusading cultural conservative.  As Governor, Branstad did nominate the justice who wrote the opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.  The article makes it clear that it is an open question as to whether the tea-party, christianist rump that is the modern GOP would even get behind the former Governor.

In the end I think this bodes well for Culver.  Culver has problems with some in his own base and while he is not universally loved, I don't think he is universally loathed.  I claim no special insight but my somewhat educated guess is that Branstad will not run because he will look at the Iowa GOP and see that his brand of pragmatic conservatism no longer fits with the party.  What I think will happen is that Culver will win by virtue of the fact that he is not the primary scarred mediocrity that will probably end up coming out of the Republican primary.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

There's a Lesson to be Learned From This

And that lesson is to never put your bribe money in the freezer.

Book Review

In my never ending quest to find and read good fiction I read Gary Shteyngart's Absudistan.  The book purports to be a darkly comic satire of life in the former Soviet republics and how multi-national American companies, like Haliburton, attempt to control the world.

There was much that I liked about the book.  I felt myself drawn to the main character named Misha Vainberg.  Misha is the son of a Russian oligarch who dies early in the novel.  Due to his dad's gangster like activities, Vainberg is unable to live Russia for the U.S., which is a tragedy for Misha.  For Misha loves the U.S. and in particular he loves a certain someone in the U.S.  In an attempt to get to the U.S., Mish tries to get a corrupt embassy official to sell him a Belgium passport.  This attempt lands Misha in the middle of a civil war in the former Soviet Republic of Absurdsvani otherwise known as Absurdistan.

I also enjoyed some of the sly humor in the book.  For example the prostitutes refer to Haliburton as Golly Burton.  Also, Misha's take on American life is often wryly on target.  

However, the book did not draw me fully into the narrative.  There was a sense that I was a little disconnected from the book.  I don't know why that is but it might have something to do with the fact that for a comic narrative the plot sounded to close to accurate.  If you see Absudistan at a used book sale or at your local library then I recommend picking it up.  However, I would not pay full price for the book.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Rep. Anthony Weiner(D-NY-) for his work in the health reform mark-up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Weiner put forth in amendment to disband Medicare in an effort to call the bluff of Republican members of Congress.  During the debate over health care reform, GOP members have called the attempts of of increasing the government's role in heath care as "socialized medicine" and they have bashed government run health care.  Rep. Weiner decided to see just much the GOP hated government health care and offered an amendment during the committee mark-up to eliminate Medicare.  Every Republican on the committee voted against the amendment and went on the record in support of some forms of government health care. 

Then later Rep. Weiner announced a plan to introduce an amendment for a single payer system.  This led committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman(D-CA-30) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-CA-8) to promise that a single player plan will get a vote on the floor.  Satisfied, Weiner withdrew his amendment. 

For calling out hypocrisy on government health care and for seeing that a single payer system has its day on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Anthony Weiner is this week's Backbencher of the Week.